The Great Suffrage Parade of 1913
On the afternoon of March 3, 1913, the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as the nation’s 28th president, thousands of suffragists gathered near the Garfield monument in front of the U.S. Capitol. Grand Marshal Jane Burleson stood ready to lead them out into Pennsylvania Avenue at exactly 3:00, in what became the first civil rights march on Washington, DC. It also proved to be turning point in the fight for the vote. By the early twentieth-century, over 50 years after Seneca Falls, suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch said the cause “bored its adherents and repelled its opponents.” The 1913 parade introduced new activism, energy, tactics, and leadership to the languishing movement. It also garnered huge national attention, both planned for, and unexpected.
The plan for the day included two major events. Once the procession was underway, a fantastic allegorical pageant was to begin on the plaza in front of the Treasury Department, fourteen blocks away. By the time the head of the parade reached the Treasury steps, the pageant would be coming to its glorious dramatic finale, and everyone would proceed to Continental Hall. There, the pageant cast would perform the final tableau again for the triumphant crowd.
No detail had been overlooked. Alice Paul made sure of it. This whole spectacle was her brainchild, and she had begun making plans and assigning tasks even before the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) had endorsed the idea or given her an official title. She badgered DC police chief Richard Sylvester into granting her a permit to use Pennsylvania Avenue. She used her connections in William Taft’s White House to make sure there was a cavalry unit standing by at Fort Myer, in case the DC police provided inadequate crowd control. She negotiated with the inaugural committee to use the grandstand constructed at 14th Street, so distinguished guests could watch the pageant in some comfort. Her public relations machine was relentless, making sure the march had been in the news so often and so thoroughly, Washingtonians almost considered it one of the formal celebrations of Wilson’s presidential inauguration.
Not all of the planning went smoothly. Paul faced a dilemma about how to handle African-American marchers, including anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells and Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority from nearby Howard University. Paul worried southern suffragists would refuse to participate in an integrated parade. After much dithering, Paul announced black women were allowed to join, but they were not listed in the official program and were encouraged to march at the back of the procession. Wells, for one, chose to wait on the sidelines till the Illinois delegation passed by, and she marched with her white peers.
Paul ensured that the parade would be elaborate. After Jane Burleson and her attendants, the striking figure of Inez Milholland, routinely described as “the most beautiful suffragist,” would follow in flowing white robes and a golden crown atop a glamorous white horse. Behind her followed a wagon with a massive banner reading: “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.” And after that, no fewer than seven sections of marchers. Representatives of nations with full suffrage each designed a float ridden by costumed participants. A series of floats represented the changing status of American women since the movement began in the 1840s. Professional women, all in matching thematic dress, were organized by occupation. The parade featured golden chariots, Women’s marching bands, college women grouped by alma mater, and a massive reproduction of the Liberty Bell. “General” Rosalie Jones and her army of pilgrims had hiked all the way from New York. Everything was designed to be visually striking for the live show, and to look great in newspaper photographs. And the sheer number and variety of marchers would impress the crowd and those who read about it with the breadth and depth of women’s desire for the franchise.
On the day of the parade, Burleson was able to start the parade a little after 3:00. At the Treasury Department, the allegorical pageant began, admired by a packed grandstand. A woman who represented Columbia, dressed in armor, called forth each of the virtues. Justice and her attendants were all dressed in purple. Charity arrived surrounded by adorable children and rose petals. Liberty struck a gallant figure that would feature prominently in news photographs. Peace released a live dove. Plenty and her attendants rushed down the steps to the plaza. Finally, Hope joined the tableau, and the magnificent picture was complete. The thousands of folks on the street and the VIPs in the grandstand, including outgoing First Lady Helen Taft, said they were very impressed. At the end of the pageant, the entire cast moved forward in formation to watch for the head of the parade, which was timed to pass at any moment. They waited. The crowd grew bored. They waited some more. The first lady left. Finally, after almost an hour, Columbia and the virtues could no longer stand the cold marble on their bare feet and went inside the Treasury building to wait.
Ten blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue, the parade was stalled. Angry spectators at 5th Street had spilled into the road, and there was no way for the marchers to proceed. From atop her horse, Burleson had a pretty good view down the Avenue, and what she saw was a “horrible, howling mob.” Thousands of spectators blocked the road, and not all were friendly. Most were men in town for Wilson’s inauguration the next day; the suffrage parade was just a sideshow. The women marched gamely on, stopping and starting, narrowing the march formation to single file where the spectators crowded the Avenue. The crowd got less orderly and more hostile, and the women felt increasingly threatened.
As the marchers proceeded, the large crowd jeered, grabbed them, spat, shouted, and even tripped them. Many policemen did nothing to control the crowd, and some even joined in their taunts. Inevitably, they even injured some. At least a hundred people were taken to the local emergency hospital. Finally, DC officials called in the calvary troops standing by at Fort Myer. Mounted soldiers met the head of the parade at 14th Street, and rode back up the parade route towards the Capitol, pushing the crowd back. As the Washington Post reported, “Their horses were driven into the throngs and whirled and wheeled until hooting men and women were forced to retreat.”
Most of the marchers eventually made their way to Continental Hall. But, instead of a triumphant capstone to a perfect day, the rally became a meeting of indignation and protest. Every woman in the hall was some combination of filthy, battered, exhausted, unnerved, insulted, weepy, furious, and freezing. Still in her academic robes, Alice Paul realized it was the best thing that ever could have happened. A perfect parade would have been in the news for one day, but a near-riot kept the suffrage cause in the headlines for weeks, as editorials denounced the behavior of the crowd and a Congressional Committee held hearings on what went wrong.
In many ways, the 1913 parade signaled the beginning of the final round in the long fight for the vote. In addition to earning the movement sympathetic press, the march served as Alice Paul’s debut as a leader willing to push the bounds of convention. It energized a new generation of activists to join the cause. It sowed the seeds for many more visible, aggressive tactics over the next seven years. And it announced, with a huge banner on a prominent wagon, a renewed push for a federal amendment, rather than the incremental state-by-state strategy the movement had cultivated.
Beyond the suffrage movement, the 1913 parade set the stage for thousands of political marches to follow. Every civil rights group that has marched on Washington, every activist who has paraded through the corridors of federal power to gain attention for their cause, every energetic citizen who has rallied in the shadow of the Capitol, has literally followed in the footsteps of the suffragists.
Rebecca Boggs Roberts has been many things including, but not limited to, journalist, producer, tour guide, forensic anthropologist, event planner, political consultant, jazz singer, and radio talk show host. Currently, she is Curator of Programming for Planet Word, a museum set to open in 2020. She looks forward to creating a new institution that will become part of the intellectual and cultural life of our capitol city. She is co-author of Historic Congressional Cemetery (2012), part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, and author of Suffragists in Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote (2017). Roberts lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, three sons, and a big fat dog.
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